JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Two military veterans and a government worker stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money through disability payments. The I-TEAM learned the three were caught on hidden camera doing activities they claimed they could not perform.
Veronica Hahn, Pensacola
Military veteran Veronica Hahn received $394,800 in disability payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs for service-connected blindness in both eyes.
According to federal court documents, during the course of a decade and a half, Hahn told various doctors within the Veterans Health Administration and in private practice that she was almost completely blind. However, within a year of receiving her disability benefits for loss of vision, she obtained driver's licenses in New Mexico, Alabama and Florida with no vision restrictions. She passed vision exams in each state with at least 20/40 vision.
Hidden camera video recorded her driving on numerous occasions. She also worked full-time as a case manager and transition counselor at several state correctional facilities. Prosecutors said all of these activities required normal eyesight to perform her duties.
U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida Christopher Canova said, "Instead of providing benefits and assistance to worthy veterans who are justifiably in need, significant resources from the Department of Veterans Affairs were diverted to uncover an extensive and persistent fraud by Ms. Hahn, who repeatedly gave dishonest information and collected hundreds of thousands of dollars to which she was not entitled."
Hahn was sentenced to nine months in federal prison and ordered to pay $394,800 in restitution after pleading guilty to theft of government funds.
Jose Calderon-Fuentes, Jacksonville
According to evidence presented at his trial, the Jacksonville military veteran was designated in July 2000 by the Department of Veterans Affairs as 100 percent disabled for bilateral blindness. He collected disability benefits in the years that followed, eventually receiving more than $4,000 a month. According to a federal indictment, he collected $538,480 through 2013.
Yet, a hidden camera caught him mowing his lawn, washing his car and driving. He had a valid Florida driver's license. Calderon-Fuentes was also recorded pushing a toddler in a stroller during a walk through a local neighborhood and stopping to give directions to a man who appeared to be lost.
After he learned he was under investigation in Florida, prosecutors said he obtained another driver's license in Puerto Rico. As part of the application process for that license, they said, he submitted a medical certificate that stated he had 20/50 vision, suggesting he had impaired vision. He was convicted on one count of theft of government property and sentenced to five years probation.
Calderon-Fuentes was ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $43,881. The reason he was not ordered to pay the total amount he collected, $538,480, is that before the trial, a judge ruled that many of the years Calderon-Fuentes collected disability payments were outside the statute of limitations.
Susan Gissy, Ocala
According to testimony and evidence presented at trial, Susan Gissy was employed as a rural mail carrier in Crystal River. In 2011, she filed a federal workers' compensation disability claim in connection with a lower back injury. In 2014, based in part on her misrepresentations to treating physicians regarding her back injury, Gissy received a permanent disability impairment rating. However, in 2016, federal agents observed her engaging in strenuous activities, including scuba diving, boating and riding 12-meter-tall waterslides. Those activities were recorded by a hidden camera.
Prosecutors said Gissy systematically misrepresented the extent of her recovery and had knowingly concealed and covered up her recovery by twice filing false documentation in support of her claim. As a result, she received more than $112,000 in workers' compensation disability benefits.
Gissy was found guilty of one count of theft of government funds and two counts of concealing a material fact in connection with the receipt of workers' compensation benefits. She was sentenced to serve three years probation.
Money rarely recouped by the government
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Curtis Fallgatter said that many of these cases rarely end with the government being refunded the money that was taken.
"They're cheating to get the funds in the first place. They're taking from the government, which means they don't have their own funds, " explained Fallgatter. He said once they get placed on probation there will be a requirement to pay back the money, but often the defendant says he/she cannot afford to pay all of it back.
In the case of Susan Gissy, she said she could only afford to pay $100 per month. "When their probation term expires, the judge has no choice other than to let them off," explained Fallgatter. This means Gissy will likely only pay back $30,000 of the more than $112,000 she collected in fraudulent workers' compensation payments.
Fallgatter said if a probation officer discovers a defendant wins the lottery or gets a job that would enable him/her to pay more, then the terms of payment can be renegotiated, but that "rarely happens," he said.
Since these disability payments are ultimately taxpayer dollars being given to people who are defrauding the government, the public should be motivated to report fraud if they suspect it.
A neighbor who indicates he/she is on disability and is seen mowing the lawn or performing other physical activities can be reported:
- Veterans Affairs fraud: Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General
- Workers' compensation fraud: Bureau of Workers' Compensation Fraud or call the Fraud Hotline, 1-800-378-0445
- Social Security fraud: Social Security Administration Office of Inspector General